Asian American

I’m Chinese, but I’m not Chinese

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Who are we behind the costume? [Chiang Mai, 2014]
On a regular basis, I’m mistaken for being Chinese – as in from the Motherland, China, Chinese. Now, to be fair, I look pretty damn Chinese, but these days it’s getting ridiculous.

I blame it on the throngs of Chinese tourists in Siem Reap, and the fact that many Cambodian students learn Chinese as another language outside of their regular schooling.

I had no idea! [A couple of my former students from Chiang Mai, 2013]
I had no idea! [A couple of my former students from Chiang Mai, 2013]
At the start of every new class, even back from when I was teaching in Thailand, I’ve enjoyed playing the game, “Guess where the teacher is from”.

As I walk in, I notice their raised eyebrows, the whispers to their classmates and of course, their smiles. After I’ve written “Welcome to such-and-such-level” on the whiteboard, “My name is Lani” and introduce myself, I like to dig in, I like to get started.

That is if they don’t beat me to it. Sometimes, they immediately ask, “Teacher, where are you from?”

Tilting my head, I smile, “Where do you think I’m from?”

“CHINA!”

“Noooo.”

“Taiwan.”

“Hong Kong.”

“Japan.”

“Singapore.”

“No, good guess though.”

“The Philippines!”

“Korea.”

I put my hands on my hips, as if to say, “Really?”

At this point they have started to slow down their guessing and have become confused.

As a joke someone likes to throw in, “Vietnam” because Cambodians hate the Vietnamese and look down upon them. Lots of history, wars, land disputes and blame, I guess.

“What other countries are there besides Asian ones?”

“Australia?”

“Canada?”

“England?”

When someone finally is able to guess, “America,” I’m then able to say, “Yes!” and then I try to get them to guess which state. They know California and New York and sometimes they know another state like Washington or Florida, but generally speaking, I’ve stumped them and they’re staring at my face and they can’t let go that I look the way that I do.

In Thailand, after I’ve done my very poor imitation of hula dancing, they’d be able to guess, Hawaii. But in Cambodia, not so much.

Depending on the level and my mood, I can explain that my mother is Thai (met with ooohhhhs and ahhhhs) and my father is Chinese. Then the look, the final look of triumph spreads across their faces, “I knew it!”

One time, a boy around 14 got excited, “Oh, you’re Thai and Chinese, and like Cambodians, like us, I mean, yeah, you’re like Cambodian, like us.”

It was sweet.

When new Khmer teachers start the term, I’m asked, “Are you Chinese? Are you from China? Are you China?”

And when a new expat teacher saw me hovering near the teachers’ room, she politely asked, “Can I help you?”

It never gets old. It’s weird after all these years, I haven’t lost my patience, snapped or gotten irritated (unless I’m outside of school or I’m boiling hot or its extenuating circumstances).

In Thailand, whenever I’ve explained that I’m from Hawaii, they would just accept that. She’s Hawaiian. But here, that’s not good enough, we don’t believe you. What are you?

As I’ve said, I’m used to it, after years of living abroad, but generally speaking, I’m not discriminated against. At least I don’t feel that way among my students. If they transfer out of my class because they want a white teacher, I have no idea, I’m none the wiser. A few times, when I’m subbing for a white colleague, I’ll joke that the students are thinking they got a downgrade, but honestly, I don’t know what they are thinking. Perhaps one day I’ll ask.

Yes, that’s what I’ll do.

Because when I’m teaching I can’t help but wonder if they treat me differently than they do a ‘more foreign looking expat’. But to the schools’ credit, they hire other Asian Americans, like me. And I’m grateful that the students are exposed not only to different accents (British, Australian, etc.), but different skin colors speaking English as their native language, as well.

There are times when I’ll sit among the students when we’re watching a presentation and I’ll just blend in, I know, because I remember one of my colleagues exclaiming, “I took a peek in your classroom and wondered, where is the teacher?!”

Another time, the cleaning lady mistakenly thought I was a Khmer teacher. And yet another time, first day of class, a student walks in and asks, “Where is the teacher?” because I was sitting down next to the students waiting for the rest of the students to show up. Or when my Thai students wai me (put their hands together and slightly bow their heads out of respect), it’s a habit, even after knowing who I am, that reaction, this is what you do when you see your auntie, just can’t be shaken out.

We heard many different languages which my b/f could mostly understand. He was being cheeky when he told these girls to hurry up in Chinese.
We heard many different languages which my bf could mostly understand. He was being cheeky when he told these girls to hurry up in Chinese. [Siem Reap, 2015]
Yeah. Looking Chinese is a funny business in Asia. People coming up to speak Chinese (“Ni hau”), folks assuming based on how I look that I come from this completely other world (which I’ve never been to). But I’m American. I was born and raised in Hawaii. I have a standard North American accent. And, like a true American, I’m horrible at learning other languages. I listen to classic rock and I love sci-fi movies. My inner universe does not reflect who they think I am.

I’m so used to this though. My partner thinks it’s hilarious. He lived in China, he speaks Chinese (and has been known to answer back to Chinese people when they address me) and wants me to “Chinese it up” like when he insisted I buy Chinese dresses in Malaysia for the sake of a good laugh.

“No.”

“But why not?”

“Because, because it looks like I’m here to take their order.”

One day I must go to China. I used to want to go to Beijing to see where my father was born. These days, not so much because it is no longer Peking, China, but the belching pollution beast of a city that I fear breathing into. When the bf and I have thought about going, he’d teach me Chinese. He tells me that my pronunciation is spot-on, dead-on and uncanny, “You’re a natural!” He laughs.

I’m certainly not a natural at Thai even though I’ve heard it all my life. Thai is a struggle. So, I don’t know. Maybe I’m more Chinese than I realize. One day, I’ll see. One day, I’ll blend in among the Chinese and see what happens.

This is what folks see when they look at me.
I guess, this is what folks see when they look at me. [Chiang Rai, 2015]
Happy Chinese New Year.

 

Have you ever experienced a case of mistaken identity?

 

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50 thoughts on “I’m Chinese, but I’m not Chinese

  1. As someone of Asian (Chinese) Australian descent, this post resonated with me on many levels 😉 I smiled all the way through reading this. When I went to school in Malaysia, my school and class was very diverse. We had American and British expat kids alongside the Asian kids, and I remember the entire class would be more silent and attentive when we had the English teacher from America come in to teach English – like she deserved more respect when any English teacher who teaches with heart deserves respect.

    On the subject of mistaken identity, I always get asked if I am Chinese by Chinese. Just yesterday someone, an Asian guy with a clipboard in hand, came up to me in a shopping mall and asked, “Are you Chinese?”. I decided to say “No”, and he walked away. Then there are the ones who come up to me and start speaking Chinese and then stop because I stare and don’t respond, and they then back away.

    Really love your sense of humour in the last shot there, Lani Bear! I think I look like that all the time :”D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, good. I’m glad you enjoyed it and could relate. Which makes me wonder,is there a big immigrant population in Australia? Surprised that there are so many Chinese there. Or are there some more concentrated in particular cities or areas more than others?

      It’s funny, my students asked me if I was doing anything for CNY and when I said, no, they were taken back, and explained that because I look the way that I do, I should be doing something for Chinese New Year. 😛

      Like

      1. There is definitely a big immigrant population in Australia. Sure, Australia is really a land made up of immigrants right from the start. But over the last few decades there are more and more migrants from South East Asia, China and India.

        There are some suburbs in Melbourne that are literally 80% Chinese, Vietnamese migrants.

        Haha, I hope you had a good day today 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy Year of the Rooster! I love your sense of humor and your laid back attitude about the issue of mistaken identity. I can understand how that could become a real inconvenience at times. You have a great attitude about it!

    Whenever I visit Europe, I get mistaken for a Canadian – I’ve even been told that I’m too nice to be an American! I guess because I don’t have a New York or Texan accent. Since I grew up overseas, it’s when I go back to the US that I feel like a hidden immigrant at times – it was much more pronounced when I was younger, but it’s still there. Over here in Asia, I feel much more at home, in many ways, although I know I’ll never fit in as a white woman, but it’s more like what I was used to growing up in Africa and Asia as a child.

    Great insights, Lani! And what you’re teaching your students by your attitude and acceptance through mistaken identity and the guessing game is worth a whole lot more than just reading, writing and ‘rithmatic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jenni! I really appreciate your comments. Yeah, maybe it’s because I was told at a young age by my mom that I look very Chinese, so that kind of stuck with me. Or maybe it’s because it’s happened sooo much that I’ve had to relax about the issue of identity. It started with teaching in Waldorf, getting fired and then deciding that identifying too much with a role (in this case, a teacher) hurt me more than it did any good.

      It helps to have a good sense of humor and not take things too seriously (in and out of the classroom), I’ve learned.

      My bf was saying the same thing, like you, about being mistaken for Dutch when he was in the Netherlands and so on. He said he has a ‘generic white’ person look about him that allows him to blend in. 555+

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Happy New Year! I dunno, given the new, embarrassing American President, perhaps you should embrace this mistaken Chinese identity. It’ll save you from explaining how on earth Americans elected Trump to non-Americans, anyway.

    When I went to Germany, people spoke to me in German first. Some men even cracked a joke and then laughed until they saw the blank look on my face. I’d probably get that all the time if I lived in Germany.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When Bush Jr. was president, many Americans sewed Canadian flags on their backpacks and pretended to be from Canada when they travelled overseas because they were so ashamed that Bush was elected and afraid of his politics. I find it rather amusing that it’s the Year of the Rooster – lots of cockadoodle-do 😛

      As far as Trump, I’ve already had to engage with my students regarding him (and the presidental election). Surprisingly, one claimed he wanted to help him build a wall (no you don’t) and the other said he liked him. I stared at him, and then decided this was a conversation for another time (not in front of the class). And later found out that he just likes to be contrary.

      Dear god, help me.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Growing up in Oklahoma, I always thought if I came to Hawaii I would fit in. Being Hapa-haole and all. But I found that here they think I’m just White, and in Oklahoma they think I’m – well – NOT White (my list ran something like this: Indian?(meaning Native American) Mexican? Japanese? Vietnamese? Korean? Basically any place America had been in conflict with).
    People assume I speak Spanish in Mexico (and Texas, Florida, and parts of California). I think the Italians and Greeks didn’t know what to make of me. Or maybe they didn’t really care?

    Anyway, I have no answers. Sometimes I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere. Other times I don’t mind being different.

    Thanks for always making me think.

    Gung Hee Fat Choy! A little CNY love from Hawaii!
    PS – I’m a Cock! 😆

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been my experience than many hapas (half-Asians) are confused for being Mexican on the Mainland. And if I showed you some pics, you’d have to agree.

      Knowing how you look, I could see how that mistake could be made. Yeah, Italians and Greeks probably did a double take. Uhhhhh, is she one of us?

      As far as not fitting in, I think many of our generation feel this way. It seems to be one of the distingushing factors among our cohorts. And I’ve decided that’s okay.

      There are benefits of not-fitting in.

      Thanks for the love, sending more back!

      PS I’m a bull 😛

      Like

  5. One day you certainly should go and experience China.
    Now to the main topic: My wife experienced similar things when she was still working at the Helsinki Airport (Europes Hub to Asia as it is the shortest connection). No matter from which Asian country her customers came they always guessed first that she must be from their country e.g. “Oh, you are so pretty you must be from “. Thing is she learned some basics in Korean and Japanese so she could at least understand them a bit but when it came to Thai or others she was just baffled as they continued talking without hesitation in their mother tongue to her. Those were some confusing years for her 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha. Had no idea that was one of her jobs. Fascinating. Yes, sometimes we Asians get lumped into all the other Asians. She’s quite fair, too, so I can see how that might happen.

      It’s okay. I certainly couldn’t tell you the difference between a Canadian or a German. I mean, I could make guesses 😛 but I’d probably just ask, “Do you speak English?” and hope for the best!

      And yes, China is on the list. Where and when, I don’t know yet. But yeah, I’ve got my eyes on you China!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My wife was for nearly 5 years a beauty consultant at the aiport.
        It is just so strange that they always believed that my wife must be from their country but well, no harm was done :p

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I think my comment didn’t go through, so I have to type it again. 😂 When I was living in China due to my husband’s former Taiwanese international company opened a branch in Shanghai, Chinese Nationals spoke to me in French or Spanish. I had my former landlord say to my husband, “I know she’s not German!” 😂😂😂 One woman thought I was Russian because I’m short…I can’t possibly be American. I get mistaken as French in Shanghai and Quebec. Now that I live in South Florida, I always remind Hispanic people one of their relatives. “You look like my niece, daughter,…”

    My husband had it much worse, though. My husband never been to China till in his mid 40’s….he admitted he had way more culture shock in China than he did when he first came to the States…the tone policing was a bit much for him, understandably.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could see that. You have a nice European look to you (classy, like the French ;)).

      It’s funny how others see us, huh? How are you liking Florida, by the way?

      Ah, yes, we were just talking about this the other day. Taiwanese are not Chinese. And I can imagine the shock all too well, something I’m not looking forward to. I’ve heard the stories, I’ve heard the stories…

      Like

  7. Lani, I just love your amusing stories! You are so good at keeping my interest and usually surprise me by taking your tale in another direction than I might expect. I was chuckling throughout your entire post!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. my mother in law told me that in chinese, what you are depends on where your father comes from. for e.g. my father in law is from shanghai even though he grew up most his life in HK; so technically my husband is considered ‘shanghainese.’ with this in mind, then even tho you don’t consider yourself ‘chinese,’ since your father is, then you are chinese! =D

    and i totally know what you mean about no one guessing your ethnicity correctly. when i’m in cambodia no one guesses that i’m khmer, and when i’m in china or HK, no one thinks i’m chinese (i’m half of both).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nah. I don’t mind being called Chinese or even caling myself Chinese because of my father. We look alike and we had (what I believe to be) compatible personalities.

      But since he died when I was so young, I am undoubtedly my mother’s daughter. Thai culture was part of my childhood regardless of how I am perceived or knowing the language.

      It’s all good. Fluidity and adaptation are key.

      That’s funny that no one believes you are Khmer when you are here! What side do you think you look more like?

      Like

  9. Cool glasses! I love your story about your students.

    I suppose my kids, who are half Chinese, could pass for many different things, but I seldom hear them talk about it. Where they live and work, there’s a big mixture of people. They all seem to be more concerned with work and other things. I have heard my youngest say that people comment on her son’s blue eyes. Her husband is Puerto Rican, and she and her husband both have brown eyes, so I guess it is kind of unusual for their son to have blue eyes. My oldest daughter is an actuary, and she and the other actuaries have their heads filled with numbers. My middle daughter, though, does want people to know she’s half Chinese. It’s like she doesn’t want that to get lost.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hapa/mixed kids have their own interesting stories. It depends on which side they favor more, I think. Also, it depends on the parents, as in, do they identify with a particular ‘race’, etc. and does that rub off on their children…

      I’m curious how my nieces and nephews will identify (if at all) with their Asian side, especially growing up in the South.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Interesting! My husband and I immigrated to Canada with our families at a young age (me at 4, him at 9), so we’re decidedly more Canadian when it comes to identity. Honestly we felt more out of place when we went to Korea three years ago, mostly feeling gigantic in comparison to those tiny, lithe Asians (even the men there, most are thin and wispy). But in Canada, I’m considered “petite” (wtf). I often don’t notice that I’m not.. you know… “Canadian” in my daily life, but some moments take me out of my body and it’s like I’m hovering over myself in the third person, realizing, “oh yeah, I’m Asian.” In my younger years, I got mistaken for Japanese quite often and some Koreans thought I was a hybrid (I blame my paternal grandmother’s milky white skin and my maternal grandmother’s hazel eyes). These days, it’s Chinese because of the way my last name is spelled – or rather, my husband’s last name. It should be Jung or Jeong, but someone in my husband’s family decided “oh hey, Cheung is how we’ll spell our last name!” It’s a good time all around.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People often tell me that they don’t see me as Asian, and I honestly don’t know what to make of that. I guess because I don’t fit the stereotype.

      Sometimes I think they are trying to be complimentary, as in, “I don’t see color.” In any case, I’m happy to not fit people’s preconceived notions of what an Asian is. 🙂

      Ah, yeah, the name. Hahahaha. My middle name sounds Italian, but it’s just the f-ed up spelling/translation from Thai.

      When I moved to Mainland America from Hawaii, I was told all the time, how petite I was and I had to argue, no I’m not. I’m average. Because I came from the land of many Asians and I know, there are ones that look like they are still children! and fat ones, and everything in between. 😛

      Thanks for stopping by Cindy!

      Like

  11. Interesting post Lani! As I’ve mentioned before my Australian Chinese fiance and I get a lot of amusement out of the different nationalities he gets mistaken as (mostly Japanese). He never gets bothered by it (and usually leaves it up to me to do the correcting), except for one time where someone in Hong Kong complimented him on his Mandarin and he was shocked “of course it’s good, I’m Chinese!!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, good. I’m glad your fiance doesn’t get ruffled feathers. I think that’s part of being AA, being a good ambassador 😛 for Asians and being tolerant (within reason of course). I mean, it sure beats being angry about it all the time!

      Like

      1. Haha I am not sure he’s deliberately being a good ambassador, just very few things bother him (even when they maybe should!) I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is less bothered by what other people think.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Awesome. What a good partner to have! I’ve dated the other side and it’s not good…always angry at the world. I hope to get that zen one day 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Agree, angry at the world is indeed hard to be around. I also hope to be that zen (although I don’t like my chances!)

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Of course I’ve enough questions from some Caucasians who wanted to believe that I was from China.
    No. Canadian-born. And insist knowing whether or not if my parents were from China. My attitude: why should you care? I don’t care about your parents’ origins. And these are strangers who I knew I would never meet again. Store owners, etc.

    I find it less annoying question from other Asian-faced folks. After all, I can’t distinguish easily from Japanese, Koreans, etc. unless I hear them speak their native tongue. Sometimes I can tell if a person is Filipino.

    I’ve been mistaken on the rare occasion for being Filipino, Malaysian.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, it’s been so long since I’ve experienced all those kinds of questions back in the US, I wonder if my tolerance would drop back down. Hahahaha. But then again, whether or not I’m in Asia or America, does it make a difference? After all, folks are folks and people are curious. I don’t know!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It depends, Lani. Being in Asia majority where you are, it would be a slightly different experience. You are also an American –already privileged with a command of English..the international language of money and upward mobility worldwide.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Right. And I’ve also been made to feel bad for not speaking the native language (looking the way that I do). Some folks think I’m being snobby, too, ‘showing off my English’. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Ah, well. I hope one day to improve my Thai, and get into Chinese when I visit China.

        Like

  13. I found this hilarious: Are you China?
    You’re good-natured about the error and I think that is best.
    In cases like yours, what I’ve known to happen if you say where you’re from, is that people ask: where are you from originally? Valid question, if you don’t “look” the “part”. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right. That’s a bit more sophisticated so they usually ask about my parents. 😛

      I’ve gotten many grammatically incorrect inquiries (hahaha) about who I am and that’s okay because I understand what they are trying to say.

      If I was to get frustrated, they wouldn’t know why. They wouldn’t understand that I’ve been asked this question a zillion times before. I think its better to have a conversation than a conflict.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I really think kids are more color-blind than adults are and would not think to take issue that they’re getting a down-grade with you from a white teacher.

    And remember to be HAPPY, oh so happy, to be mistaken for a little student. Those days are numbered. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahhaa. Yeah, actually, teenagers are the braver ones, the ones that ask. As well as my adult students. But my kiddies, they are too afraid to ask too many questions. Sure, there are times when they do, but generally speaking, they are shy at first.

      Yeah, those folks are looking into the classroom at a distance 😛

      Like

  15. This made me laugh Lani! I live in China and people alllways think I’m American. When I tell them I’m Irish they ask, but what COUNTRY are you from?
    You really should check out China though, I’m sure your bf has told you about everything besides smog that exists there.

    If you need a little more persuading, have a nosy at my blog about life in China. Look forward to reading more of your stuff!

    https://imnotchinabefunnyaboutit.com/

    Like

    1. I will. I enjoy finding new bloggers (and vice versa). Yes, he has told me the nighmare stories and why he strangely misses it.

      Yes, Ireland…where is that place? Hahahaha. 😛

      Like

      1. Nightmare stories indeed! It’s somewhat of a love-hate relationship at times, but I missed it too when I left, so I’m back for round two. Ireland is hidden treasure 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Yip. I am 4th generation Indian/Pakistani but born & raised in South Africa. Which means I am 100% South African. But yes I too am constantly mistaken for being from India/Pakistan/Bangladesh/Sri Lanka and sometimes people also think I am Arab. When I was on holiday in Sri Lanka, I was mistaken for a waitress at so many restaurants… a perk was then when I went to India, I paid local prices everywhere! I have learned to embrace it and I love seeing the surprise on faces when they hear my accent!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome! Yes, I have to admit, I get a kick out of surprising people with who I am. Asians carry this interesting stereotype of being quiet, conservative and agreeable in the “West”, and I love challenging that perception simply by being who I am. Thanks for stopping by Panda! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I can totally relate to this! I’m Chinese but grew up in the UK and now I teach English in HK. The local teachers tell me not to wear white or I will be mistaken for a student haha. I find it so interesting how if you questioned someone about their race and what they were doing in a certain country in a western place, some people might find that offensive but in Asia, it’s almost endearing sometimes… That sheer confusion of ethnicity vs cultural identity.

    Like

  18. I can totally relate to the title of this post, Lani—just swap out the “chinese” for “indian”! Culturally and genetically (I guess) I am Indian. But I’ve always identified as being English, because that was where I was born and where I grew up. People often ask me where my parents are from, which throws another spanner in the works as they’re from Uganda and Kenya, but too are Indian!

    In Bahrain it’s not uncommon for people to start speaking to me in Hindi and I have to shake my head and apologetically say, sorry i don’t understand—I’m English!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you can relate, its much more fun that way, don’t you think? 😉

      I didn’t know that about your parents. How interesting. Do you have somewhere on the blog about their stories? I’m curious now.

      I identify pretty much with being American and it’s funny because I don’t think outsiders understand that, for some reason. My friends and colleagues forget I’m Asian, as they have told me.

      Like

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